Toyo Ito & Associates, Architects, Sendai Mediatheque, Miyagi, Japan (1995-2001); left: exterior view; right: detail of interior support tube (photos ©Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York) (click to enlarge)

What if modern architecture could do it all over again? What if it could once again evolve out of and in opposition to the 19th century’s Beaux-Arts style without supplanting it with a stripped-down design language of basic geometric forms? What if it were to ditch its Bauhaus building blocks and heady theorizing about the house as a “machine for living in” and less being more, and steer more closely to nature — its forms, spirit, rhythms — instead?

That rather big “What if?” is one of the implicit themes pulsing through the exhibition A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA and Beyond, which opens at the Museum of Modern Art tomorrow (and runs through July 4). Showcasing some fascinating experiments in unusually expressive, innovatively functional form, it focuses on the work of the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Toyo Ito (b. 1941) and his influence as a mentor on a network of fellow Japan-based architects who in recent decades have been creating remarkable buildings both at home and abroad.

These architects represent three generations of cutting-edge design activity in Japan. The exhibition’s curator, Pedro Gadanho (who organized it in collaboration with Phoebe Springstubb, a curatorial assistant in MoMA’s architecture and design department), emphasizes that, over the years, their ideas and influences have routinely crisscrossed in what he calls a “constellation” of personal and professional relationships, with Ito at its center.

The architects Ryue Nishizawa (left) and Kazuyo Sejima (right), each of whom has an individual practice and who also work together as the Pritzker Prize-winning firm SANAA (photo ©2016 Roland Hagenberg)

In addition to Ito’s portfolio of built projects, the exhibition looks at the work of Kazuyo Sejima, and Ryue Nishizawa (and of Sejima and Nishizawa’s partnership as SANAA, which designed, among other high-profile projects, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York). The show also examines the equally noteworthy work of Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata and Junya Ishigami.

During the exhibition’s preview earlier this week, Gadanho, a former curator of contemporary architecture at MoMA who now serves as the director of the Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology in Lisbon, in his native Portugal, told me, “The feeling of lightness, open space and anti-hierarchical character of these architects’ buildings go against what is familiar in modern architecture.” Later, speaking at a press conference at the museum, he said that Ito’s “influential ideas of structure move away from Le Corbusier’s grid and echo our changing times in terms of how they respond to the new media around us and in their references to nature.”

Sou Fujimoto’s model for his Primitive Future House Project (2001); acrylic; variable dimensions; the architect’s attached note says, “Back to square one questioning what floor, wall, ceiling and structure are…” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In an interview with the Japanese architecture magazine GA in 2008, Ito explained that the basis of his work has been what he calls “fluidity.” Twentieth-century architecture, he observed, had followed a “stable order” of “geometry premised on grids” and had tended to be “abstract and self-contained.” How, then, could design rooted in and guided by such an “order” respond to the kinds of relationships Ito wished to pursue, such as those between architecture and its surrounding environment or even between the rooms of a particular building?

Ito’s designs and those of the architects in his orbit reject the strict geometry of classic modern architecture’s so-called International Style, with its rectilinearity, flat planes and predictable, slab-and-column construction. Instead, they take shape-defining cues from the natural environment in which their houses, museums, libraries, schools and other structures are situated, or from the dynamic energy of a large, sprawling city like Tokyo, where people are in constant motion (on foot, by car and, notably, by means of a complex network of subways and commuter trains).

The architectural historian Terunobu Fujimori (b. 1946), a member of Ito’s generation who also designs nature-inspired houses himself, offers an informative essay in the MoMA exhibition’s accompanying catalog. In it he recalls that, in the early decades of the 20th century, a handful of Japanese architects traveled to Europe to study and apprentice with such now-legendary modernists as Walter Gropius (the Bauhaus school’s founding director) and Le Corbusier. Separately, Fujimori cites Kenzo Tange (1913-2005), who preferred Le Corbusier’s curved lines and surfaces and the sensual character of his unfinished, poured concrete over the slicker, rectilinear geometry of Bauhaus-derived design. Tange became well known in the 1960s for his Metabolist projects (for example, his proposal for a vast city-on-the-water in Tokyo Bay) and structures like a gymnasium, built in Tokyo for the 1964 Summer Olympics, whose sweeping, suspended roof evokes both traditional Japanese architectural forms and something organic.

Sou Fujimoto, House NA, Tokyo (2007-2011) (photos ©Iwan Baan, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York) (click to enlarge)

Fujimori tracks these two contrasting sensibilities through Japanese modern architecture’s evolution. He points out that certain members of Ito’s generation — like Ito himself, who became professionally active in the 1970s, and Tadao Ando, who was also born in 1941 — do not “fit neatly” into either a Le Corbusier- or a Bauhaus/International Style-inspired camp. Instead, “their architectural masters were almost singularly Japanese,” including Tange and other predecessors.

MoMA’s new exhibition suggests that it is in the context of this lineage (and sometimes in contrast to the subsequent historicist, style-quoting tendencies of certain postmodernists of the 1980s) that Ito and those in the “constellation” around him should be considered. Indeed, in the projects featured in the current show, refreshingly, no hint of historicism whatsoever can be detected. (Which makes one wonder: What did anyone ever see in the cheap theatrics and bombastic style pastiches of pomo architecture anyway?) Instead, in these contemporary Japanese designers’ proposals and constructed forms, a vision of an architecture that is at once soulful and unabashedly humanistic in spirit emerges.

“It all begins with Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque,” Gadanho said, referring to a public library and new-media research center the architect designed for the city of Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture, north of Tokyo; that project was completed in 2001. A glass-enclosed box with thin floors supported not by conventional columns but rather by curving tubes, this building is a vivid example of Ito’s understanding of “fluid” space. (In some light conditions, its exterior glass walls seem to disappear.) Its distinctive tubes, which resemble long strips of seaweed, enclose circulation systems for air, water, electricity, light and even people within the earthquake-proof structure. MoMA’s exhibition features photos and a model of this influential project.

Details of the Rolex Learning Center (2005-2010), designed by SANAA, a library and multipurpose study facility on the campus of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland (photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Kazuyo Sejima had worked with Ito before setting out on her own in the late 1980s; she and Ryue Nishizawa founded SANAA in 1995. “The disciples have influenced the mentor as much as Ito has influenced other architects,” Gadanho observed. Sejima has become known for the sensual, seemingly random and self-generating forms of some of her buildings, and the peculiar, enticing logic of the interrelated spaces she creates within them. Often they are glass-enclosed, like her multipurpose facility for the town of Onishi, northwest of Tokyo (2003-2005). Nishizawa has explored the volume, character and functions of the basic box shape, most radically in his narrow (it’s only 13 feet wide), four-story Garden and House (2006-2011) in Tokyo. Tucked into a sliver of space between two much taller buildings, this structure has no conventional exterior walls at all. Its concrete-slab floors appear to float in the air.

Left: The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (1999-2004) in Kanazawa, Japan, designed by SANAA; right: the architects’ model for this project; acrylic; variable dimensions (photo at left ©SANAA, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; photo at right by the author for Hyperallergic)

Working together as SANAA, Sejima and Nishizawa also have won the Pritzker Prize. SANAA’s ingenious design for the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (1999-2004) in Kanazawa, in western Japan, places stand-alone gallery, office and other function-specific units within a huge, glass-enclosed circle, like big bonbons arranged inside a shallow hatbox. SANAA’s masterpiece may well be its Rolex Learning Center, a library and study center on the campus of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, a science-and-technology university in Switzerland. This extraordinary 215,000-square-foot structure, whose single story undulates and floats above the surface of the earth, really does provide, as its creators had intended, “a heightened physical experience” of architectural space — and, as in a great cathedral, even an emotional sense of how imaginatively constructed space can stir the soul.

Sou Fujimoto’s model for his Musashino Art University Museum and Library, Tokyo (2007-2010); wood and paper; variable dimensions (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

At MoMA, Sou Fujimoto (b. 1971) is represented by such Tokyo projects as his Musashino Art University Museum and Library (2007-1010) and House NA (2007-2011). The building blocks of the former’s multi-chambered, spiraling interior are large, boxy, wooden bookshelf units, while the house substitutes clear glass for exterior walls — the neighbors can see everything — in an irregular, multi-level stack of rectangular “rooms” in a structure that wipes out any inside-outside distinction. In Primitive Future, a book published in 2008, Fujimoto wrote, “I search for an ideal condition of new architecture in-between artifice and nature.”

A model for Junya Ishigami’s Port of Kinmen Passenger Service Center, Taiwan (begun in 2014), a structure whose shape emulates and blends in with that of a hilly, coastal landscape; acrylic, paper, plaster, wood, colored pencil and acrylic paint; variable dimensions (photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Akihisa Hirata (b. 1971), who worked with Ito in the past and opened his own firm in 2005, and Junya Ishigami (b. 1974), who worked with Kazuyo Sejima & Associates until 2004, are the youngest architects represented in MoMA’s show — and the purveyors of some of the most unusual design ideas on display, including Hirata’s Foam Form project (2011) for the harbor city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, with its giant net of walkways and plazas suspended over a river. Ishigami’s Port of Kinmen Passenger Service Center, also in Taiwan (begun in 2014), is a grass-and-tree covered, hilly form that reproduces and blends in with a coastal region’s mountainous landscape. Ishigami is also keen on structures that are built in — or rather dug out of or sunk into — the earth.

Akihisa Hirata, Foam Form Project, Kaohsiung, Taiwan (2011) (photo © Akihisa Hirata Architecture Office and Kuramochi + Oguma, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York) (click to enlarge)

Roland Hagenberg is an Austrian writer, artist and photographer who has lived in Japan for two decades; a contributor to Vogue and Architectural Digest, his books include 20 Japanese Architects (2009) and 24 Japanese Architects (2011). Hagenberg knows the work of the architects featured in MoMA’s exhibition well, and as the founder of the Raiding Foundation, a cultural organization based in the Austrian village of Raiding, south of Vienna, he has been working with several of them to create small guesthouses in which visiting artists and performers will eventually be invited to stay for working residencies.

Architect Sou Fujimoto with a model for the small guesthouse he has designed for the Raiding Foundation’s project in Raiding, Austria (photo ©2016 Roland Hagenberg)

In a written interview, referring to the professional and personal relationships highlighted in MoMA’s exhibition, Hagenberg observed that “nowhere else in the world is the importance of belonging to the right ‘family tree branch’ so career-fermenting as it is in Japan. It has to do with respecting a senior sensei (master) and carrying on his or her knowledge.” All of the MoMA-featured architects, Hagenberg noted, are interested in the Japanese notion of “engawa,” a term that refers to a porch or veranda or more generally to “the intermediary space between the living space inside and the surrounding nature outside.” Hagenberg remarked, “All of these architects adhere to this principle, allowing nature to enter their buildings, and vice versa.” In contrast to their post-World War II forbears, who were big on massive, assertive forms and generous with concrete, today’s leading Japanese architects, Hagenberg noted, “have gone back to the roots of Japanese carpentry and reinvented modern Japanese architecture” with buildings that sometimes seem to be held together less by mortar than by air.

He added, “These architects got their big starts with fashion-company and museum commissions over the past ten to twenty years.” They gained credibility within a social context, Hagenberg pointed out, with the designs they created for housing, community centers and other reconstruction efforts following the earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan in 2011. Those designs, Hagenberg explained, “served regular people, the disaster survivors — not Dior, Prada or Louis Vuitton.” Now, he added, as many of the projects in MoMA’s exhibition suggest, “sustainability and environmental concerns rooted in the concept of engawa have become key characteristics of current Japanese architecture, or, simply stated, why do you need an air conditioner when a gush of wind passing through the house will do?”

In the current exhibition’s catalog, Ito considers modern architecture’s character and legacy, looking ahead and moving on without dogma. Nowadays, he writes, “[i]t is evident that architecture must be part of nature, not separate from it. Most modern architecture is composed of Euclidean geometry, although there is no perpendicular grid in the natural world.” Today’s powerful computer-based design and engineering programs, novel building materials, and innovative construction techniques allow for the creation of structures whose shapes and functions could not even have been imagined before. Still, Ito advises, contemporary designers need not attempt to “imitate nature.” Instead, he proposes, in a message that has resonated across several generations of his Japanese peers, they should strive “to create architecture that breathes.”

A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA and Beyond will remain on view at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through July 4, 2016.

Edward M. Gómez is a graphic designer, critic, arts journalist, and author or co-author of numerous books about art and design subjects, including Le dictionnaire de la civilisation japonaise, Yes: Yoko...